Tesla, Chicago, and the War of the Currents

August 18, 2011

When you think of the geniuses that have shaped the modern world, certain names may come to mind: Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, perhaps. One name that doesn’t get as much attention is that of Nikola Tesla, though it probably should. His life and work are on display now in TESLA: The genius spark of Nikola Tesla, an exhibition currently at Navy Pier in Chicago.

Though not a household name, Tesla’s many inventions and his hundreds of patents in areas of electronic and mechanical engineering formed the foundation of the electronic age. He was a pioneer in radio and  remote control. A few of his more creative ideas, like a death ray and a camera that could photograph thoughts, never got made, unfortunately. But his most significant invention was likely the AC motor, which is used in most of the appliances we use today. However, the dominance of AC didn't come easily. Historians call it the "War of the Currents," and it turns out the war was arguably won in Chicago.

Model of first AC motor Tesla designed.

AC, or alternating current, may be Tesla’s greatest contribution to the modern world.  AC allows for the transmission of electricity over long distances without great losses, which is the major weakness of DC, or direct current. Using transformers to convert the voltage and current of electricity, Tesla’s AC system could send high voltage low current electricity over power lines, then change that electricity to the low voltage high current form more suitable for use in homes and factories.

Industrialist George Westinghouse recognized Tesla’s eccentric genius and the advantages of AC, and so the two began working together. On the other side, Thomas Edison was backing DC. At stake was the establishment of a standard for the developing US industrial economy.

Edison organized a propaganda campaign to discredit AC power. At state and county fairs around the country, dogs, cats and horses were electrocuted on stage, purportedly to illustrate the dangers of AC. The fate of AC power was eventually decided at a fair, but no animals had to die in the process.

Photo of Columbian Exhibition at night.

The Columbian Exhibition of 1893 was to be the first World’s Fair to be entirely powered by electricity.  The General Electric Company, backed by Edison and his DC technology, made a bid to power the fair. Westinghouse and Tesla undercut them, due to the much greater efficiency of the AC system. Edison even refused to let Tesla use his light bulbs, an obstacle Tesla got around by inventing a new kind of bulb.

Hall of Machinery at the 1893 World's Fair.

In the Hall of Machinery, twelve of Tesla’s AC generators were on display as they provided the fair’s electricity. The success of the AC system in lighting the Chicago World’s Fair was the beginning of the end of the war of the currents. Proved to be both safe and efficient, AC power went on to become the standard for electrical power in a growing energy-hungry country.

To learn more about Tesla and his many discoveries and achievements, you can visit the exhibit on Navy Pier through August 28th (Full disclosure: WBEZ is a media sponsor of the exhibit).  One cool item on display is a Tesla Coil, one of Tesla's most famous inventions. Essentially, it is a transformer that creates a high frequency electro-magnetic field that can wirelessly transmit electricity. Below you can hear the sound of the Tesla coil and see an exhibit volunteer demonstrating how a florescent bulb is lit up without touching the coil.